The Rideau Canal – a poem

The curtain does fall so majestic and proud

The Rideau Canal

The curtain does fall so majestic and proud

Such a natural wonder, so gracious a shroud

As if a powerful train of glory descends

As a continuous fall at the Outaouais end

A fire alights from the south it did spread

To the north like a plague through its heart it has bled

With a mawkish like cry for freedom and joy

But freedom’s best chance was a fraudulent ploy

From a flicker of flame to a firestorm bred

Death escalates through a life cycle of dread

And taming this shrew with its penchant for blood

Was a foolish man’s bait for poor Madison’s club

Yet the fire would spread in a harrowing scene

From a spark it would roar with a devilish scream

From Niagara on east, to a Forty Mile Creek

To a nondescript farm and a Chateauguay sneak

From Queenstown to Lundy, Detroit and the Thames

The Boxer and Enterprise, surrender of Maine

Through Ohio and Plattsburg, to a Moravian town

The war it did rage for Miss Liberty’s crown

Cities would fall and the towns they would burn

First Newark then York; it was Washington’s turn

War’s firebrand eyes thrust farther to yield

And finally burn in an Orleans field

What came but a draw in this foolish man’s quest

For power and glory are such meaningless guests

Whatever the gain from the lives that were lost

For the hawkish bent men who lied at great cost

And the curtain still fell, so majestic and proud

As if sensing the chaos, so soothing its sound

Like the rapturous strains of a torrent, transcends

To emerge as a call at the Outaouais end

***

The years fell away and the anger did wane

Rush-Baggot had calmed such a petulant strain

An American age brought prosperity’s peace

As a confidant pace of change was unleashed

But the land to the north so upright and proud

Was paranoid still to the south’s freedom sound

A country that cried for security’s calm

Yet stands all alone ‘gainst a threatening psalm

But this land full of lakes and rivers and streams

Was a natural course for a military dream

For fear set in stride a magnificent quest

To build a canal that was strategically blessed

While the mighty St. Laurence was a natural draw

It was fraught with real danger from its rapid rock falls

And upstream it ran with a thunderous roar

Too close to the south with its threatening core

The Ottawa ran to St. Laurence’s call

To strike from the north and a western landfall

An historical route that opened the west

Where the traders would meet at the curtain for rest

Yet two rivers did run from a common high ground

To the south and the north from Lake Rideau their sound

From the shallows and falls through the marshes and swamps

From King’s town to Wright’s town, two rivers as one

To build a canal through this wilderness screams

Of a madness and curse of the military’s dream

A task so immense, so daunting and brash

That only the British could fathom this task

But the British did find a man of the Corp

A Wellington man from the Peninsular War

A man who had held the Canadian Shield

So right for this task with indefatigable zeal

John By was a Colonel and a leader of men

Ahead of his time and a genius, well bred

An engineer’s man with a passionate streak

For simplicity’s beauty with its functional tweaks

With orders to build a navigable path

From the Outaouais south to Ontario’s wrath

To rise from a bay named the Entrance – way crept

Up flight after flight, like some nautical step

A plan was developed and contracts were signed

Engineering so simple with symmetrical lines

Pure genius at work with a heavenly hand

To guide and instruct a magnanimous man

With Drummond and Redpath, Phillips, MacKay

Canadian contractors, strong men of their day

These artists of stone were men of their word

So forthright and loyal to the Colonel’s accord

The sappers and miners and mason’s stones lay

Stonecutters and woodmen, all of the trades

For comfort, their spirit; their love of the crown

Romantic and colourful, these men of the realm

But the marvelous work that was soon to unfold

Was dependent upon the poor labourer’s code

The back wrenching work to clear out the land

And dig such a ditch with just spades in their hands

Such men from hard times, forever were cursed

To fight for survival and work through their thirst

Through backbreaking strains as their calloused hands scream

As they toiled and they toiled for this military dream

The Frenchmen held sway with their skill and savvy

So noble these men and their role as navvies

Independent of mind with a will to succeed

Just pride in their work and their songs and their deeds

But an Irishman’s fate to arrive at this place

To rescue one’s life from some wretched like fate

The scourge of the earth in the Englishman’s eye

Forgotten at home, they severed all ties

For a pestilence spread to drive them afar

From an emerald isle to this devil’s back yard

Though beauty may rest on the eye from beyond

A hellish nightmare was reality’s song

Just rags on their backs with their wives by their side

With children so weak from starvation and pride

A thousand would fall from a dengueish like hue

And die from this work’s laborious flu

Poor brothers would cry as their graves had been marked

So blind to the danger and the peril from sparks

As the powder was set with a magical link

Their lives were extinguished from the death blast’s cruel drink

Yet the lakes and the streams, swift water, rock falls

Were captured and tamed by this engineer’s call

Magnificent feats what By had achieved

In this harsh, hellish wilderness was hard to conceive

The entrance way blessed by a protestant prayer

The first stone was set by John Franklin with care

Not mindful as yet that his greatness was cast

To die in the Arctic from an arctic cold blast

The curse of Hog’s Back; an Isthmus scourge

The tranquility of Chaffey’s; Long Island was purged

At Burritt’s and Black, these rapids were tamed

And Merrickville’s beauty, a religious refrain

With names like Poonamalie, with its cedar incense

An Indian aura in a wilderness sense

Opinicon’s names and a Cranberry fog

The curse of the labourer to die in this bog

The dam at the falls known locally as Jones

Is a testament still to its magnificent stone

Block upon block in a crescent like stance

Like a rampart of genius or an engineer’s dance

The work underway, six years to progress

The locks were completed and the dams were well dressed

Through steamy hot summers, through sweat and death’s fear

Through winter’s ice jams; hell’s nightmare those years

The locks and the dams, wastewater and weirs

The cut at the entrance, eight steps to the piers

The breadth of this work remains unfathomable, sealed

As a masterpiece set in the Canadian Shield

***

The threat from the south was all but contained

For the status quo boundary was all that was gained

From the firestorm set in those years long ago

Extinguished for good as a friendship would grow

Poor tragedy’s mark on this cornerstone lay

On the heart of a man who held the Rideau at bay

Called back by a King who questioned his deed

A question of funds from some zealot to heed

An inquiry would set the tone through the years

To diminish By’s feats; he was ignored by his peers

His spirit would die from his countrymen’s chill

And not from the bog or the Isthmus ills

Yet his legacy flows for our nation to see

A wonderment still, a magnificent deed

To balance such beauty with a functional stream

Through a Canadian wilderness with just minimal means

But the jewel in the crown of this engineer’s quest

Was not the canal or a technical best

For a town had been born in the Outaouais scene

In this land full of lakes and rivers and streams

By the Barracks Hill shanty near the Sapper’s stone bend

A magnificent tower of peace would ascend

From a lower town swamp to an upper town’s view

A great city would grow with great values imbued

For this capital’s crown of achievement remains

From the peaceful green flow of the Rideau, contained

The seeds of a city and a national theme

To build a great country with the freedom to dream

And the curtain still falls, so majestic and proud

Like a sentinel’s call or a passionate bow

For the genius who toiled on the Outaouais scene

And left such a mark with this beautiful stream

John Morrison

Mill Bay

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